The Situationist

Busker or Virtuoso? Depends on the Situation

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on April 9, 2007

Joshua Bell

Gene Weingarten, and a team of his colleagues, have a wonderful (situationist) cover story in this week’s Washington Post Magazine. It’s a fun read, and we highly recommend the piece in its entirety. In this post, we simply want to underscore a few of its situationist themes. First, a few preliminaries.

The photo above is of Joshua Bell, one of the world’s accomplished and most popular living violinists. Wikipedia has this to say about Bell:

Bell began taking violin lessons at the age of four when his mother discovered her son had taken rubber bands from around the house and stretched them across the handles of his dresser drawer and was plucking out music he had heard her play on the piano. His parents got him a scaled-to-size violin for their now five-year-old son and started him on lessons.

Joshua Bell made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1985 with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. He has since performed with almost all of the world’s major orchestras and conductors. As well as the standard concerto repertoire, Bell has performed new works—he is the dedicatee of Nicholas Maw‘s violin concerto, the recording of which won Bell a Grammy, and gave the world premiere of the work in 1993. He performed the solo part on John Corigliano‘s Oscar-winning soundtrack for the film The Red Violin and was also featured in Ladies in Lavender. Bell also made an appearance in the movie Music of the Heart, a story about the power of music, with other notable violinists.

Owing to his unquestioned talents (not to mention a healthy dose of good looks), Joshua is also a media darling. He’s made appearances on “The Tonight Show,” CNN, CBS, NBC News, CNBC, PBS’s “Evening at Pops” and “Live from Lincoln Center.” In addition, he’s been profiled in magazines as diverse as Esquire, Newsweek, Vogue, Gramophone, Pulse, and, of course, Strad and Strings. Interview magazine summed up Bell’s musical talents this way: His music “does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live.”

His latest CD, “The Voice of the Violin,” has received reviews that include phrases such as “delicate urgency,” “masterful intimacy,” “unfailingly exquisite,” “a musical summit,” amd “. . . will make your heart thump and weep at the same time.”

OK, now let us remind you of one of the classic demonstrations of the underestimated role of situation and the overestimated role of disposition: the Good Samaritan experiment, conducted by Situationist contributor John Darley with C. Daniel Batson, and recently described on The Situationist in a post by contributor David Yosifon. In that experiment, Princeton seminarians on their way to give a sermon on the Good Samaritan stopped or, more often, did not stop to help a person hunched over in a doorway moaning and calling for help. The seminarians helped or didn’t depending mostly upon their situation. Those in a hurry stopped 10 percent of the time to help, while those with time to spare stopped 60 percent of the time.

Now recall our February post describing how “perceptions of the source of music and of its quality may be more closely linked than we recognize or would like to believe.”

Joshua Bell in Subway — from Washington Post Magazine

What does all this have to do with Joshua Bell?

Well, perhaps because Bell’s parents are both psychologists, he agreed to participate in a little experiment concocted by the staff at the Washington Post — an experiment that resembles the Good Samaritan classic and that again demonstrates the significance of situation in our appreciations of music. The setup was simple: Take an acclaimed virtuoso, have him play in the subway, and watch what happens.

What were the predictions?:

In preparing for this event, editors at The Post Magazine discussed how to deal with likely outcomes. The most widely held assumption was that there could well be a problem with crowd control: In a demographic as sophisticated as Washington, the thinking went, several people would surely recognize Bell. Nervous “what-if” scenarios abounded. As people gathered, what if others stopped just to see what the attraction was? Word would spread through the crowd. Cameras would flash. More people flock to the scene; rush-hour pedestrian traffic backs up; tempers flare; the National Guard is called; tear gas, rubber bullets, etc.

Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, was asked what would happen if a great violinist performed incognito in such a setting, and he supported that basic prediction: the music would break the flow of bustling commuters and at least a small crowd would develop to take it in.

Antonio Stradivari, by Edgar Bundy, 1893

If, without watching, you just listen to videos of Bell on the Post’s website, it’s hard to imagine any other result. Again, this was not any ordinary violinist, it was Joshua Bell. And he was not playing just any violin, he was playing one of the world’s most perfect violins – handcrafted by Antonio Stradivari – which cost Bell roughly $3.5 million. And on that Strad, Bell was playing not just any music but some of the most challenging and beautiful violin music every composed. For instance, he started his one-hour set with “Chaconne” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor.

Bell calls it “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect. Plus, it was written for a solo violin, so I won’t be cheating with some half-assed version.”

If you think that sounds effusive, consider what Johannes Brahms had to say about the same piece of music:

“On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”

Guercino Painting - Saint Francis Angel with ViolinBell took his prodigious talents, his exquisite violin, his world-class showmanship, and his divine music down into the subway. So what happened? Did the situation define the music, or did the music transform the situation?

It wasn’t even even close:

Three minutes went by before something happened. Sixty-three people had already passed when, finally, there was a breakthrough of sorts. A middle-age man altered his gait for a split second, turning his head to notice that there seemed to be some guy playing music. Yes, the man kept walking, but it was something.

A half-minute later, Bell got his first donation. A woman threw in a buck and scooted off. It was not until six minutes into the performance that someone actually stood against a wall, and listened.

Things never got much better. In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run — for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

The whole experience through Bell for a loop.

“At a music hall, I’ll get upset if someone coughs or if someone’s cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change.” This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.

* * *

“The awkward times,” he calls them. It’s what happens right after each piece ends: nothing. The music stops. The same people who hadn’t noticed him playing don’t notice that he has finished. No applause, no acknowledgment. So Bell just saws out a small, nervous chord — the embarrassed musician’s equivalent of, “Er, okay, moving right along . . .” — and begins the next piece.

* * *

Watching the video weeks later, Bell finds himself mystified by one thing only. He understands why he’s not drawing a crowd, in the rush of a morning workday. But: “I’m surprised at the number of people who don’t pay attention at all, as if I’m invisible. Because, you know what? I’m makin’ a lot of noise!”

Ellsworth Kelly, 1951But the odd result is, as foreshadowed above, easy to explain in light of what social psychology has discovered about the power of situation. But one need not have a psychology degree to understand the significance of the frame. Mark Leithauser, a curator at the National Gallery explained the outcome this way:

“Let’s say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, past the giant columns, and brought it into a restaurant. It’s a $5 million painting. And it’s one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: ‘Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.'”

When Edna Souza, a Brazilian woman who shines shoes near the point where Bell performed, was asked about the fact that no one stopped to hear the music, she was unfazed. She’d been living in the human experiment for a long time, and she knew the power of situation and had seen a real-world version of the Good Samaritan experiment. According to Souza, the fact that most people rushed was to be expected: “Couple of years ago, a homeless guy died right there. He just lay down there and died. The police came, an ambulance came, and no one even stopped to see or slowed down to look.”

What was the only group with a sufficiently discerning ear to want to stop and listen? Children — the one group least likely to feel the power of situational forces to keep walking (that is, except for the arm-tug of their parents).


12 Responses to “Busker or Virtuoso? Depends on the Situation”

  1. Doug S. said

    The results of this experiment do not surprise me in the least. I’d have listened, at least for a little while, but I’m weird that way. I still feel like I have some of the attitudes of a child, despite being 24 years old. (I also suspect that my mother would agree.) The last time I was in New York, I stopped to listen to a street musician playing pan pipes along with a recording of other instruments.

    Anyway, many people don’t find classical music particularly appealing; I suspect that the average person walking through that subway wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between Josh Bell and a random university violin student. You might get a bigger reaction from a performer of more popular music; I wonder what would happen if you gave Eric Clapton a guitar and a disguise, and set him up in a subway?

  2. Gary said

    There is a great response to the Joshua Bell article by a NYC subway musician in her blog
    She interprets the situation differently from the Washington Post reporters… I thought you might find it interesting.

  3. Rahul said

    Here’s what I posted on another blog:

    I disagree with the analogy with taking “one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly”, and removing the frame. The fact is that people appreciate the classics — Bach, Rembrandt — and they don’t appreciate modern art (what is that Kelly thing supposed to mean?) or music (Schoenberg sounds like noise to most people).

    I’m pretty sure that commuters in Europe, and indeed in New York, would stop to listen to an expert performance of Bach’s Chaconne. I have seen appreciative crowds in Paris gather for much less inspired metro-station music. They would also stop to admire a Rembrandt or Monet (though they may assume it’s a well-executed copy). This experiment says more about Washington DC than about human psychology.

    In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if, in some European cities, they also gathered to hear an expertly-played Schoenberg.. but the Kelly is a different matter. The picture linked above looks like a practical joke, which it probably was, like much modern art.

    Gary – the link to the NYC subway musician’s blog seems broken.

  4. […] the hood’ to incorporate this special feature of consciousness. In the Situationist’s post “Busker or Virtuoso? Depends on the Situation”, Hanson and McCann write: [P]erhaps because Bell’s parents are both psychologists, he agreed to […]

  5. Did a post on this yesterday after reading the article in the Post. And then came upon your post this morning and smiled a little after seeing that we sort of quoted the same sections from the article. Looks like some parts struck a chord in everyone.
    As for the situational thing goes I’m not sure if it were entirely true. I mean yes about the painting it may happen to me since I don’t really understand a great deal about true art and masterpieces. But then I don’t understand classical music that much either. Yet the first time I heard Josh Bell I was awestruck. You don’t really have to understand classical music or be familiar with the pieces to know that this is sheer genius. It doesn’t matter if it is Josh bell in person or not. Good music needs to be appreciated. And there is no excuse for not stopping or listening because you have something more pressing at that moment.

    @ rahul This experiment says more about Washington DC than about human psychology.
    and you’re saying people in DC have less time to appreciate the finer aspects of life and Bell would have had a crowd someplace else?

  6. […] be able to tell the difference. Pearls before swine.  See the Situationist’s take on this here and their earlier item on the situational in musical appreciation. Powered by Gregarious (42) Share […]

  7. […] Busker or Virtuoso? Depends on the Situation […]

  8. […] When Weingarten’s account of the experiment ran in the Post’s magazine three months later, readers followed the narrative with rapt attention that contrasted starkly with the indifference of the commuters. The article was discussed on blogs and other forums devoted to classical music, pop culture, politics, and social science [For a previous Situtionist post on this experiment, click here.] […]

  9. […] Busker or Virtuoso? Depends on the Situation (by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann) […]

  10. […] 28, 2010 A few years ago The Situationist blog covered the story about an experiment where Joshua Bell’s posed as a subway musician to see if anyone would […]

  11. […] 1, 2010 in Arts, The poor | by aablaev A few years ago The Situationist blog covered the story about an experiment where Joshua Bell’s posed as a subway musician to see if anyone would […]

  12. […] “Busker or Virtuoso? Depends on the Situation,” […]

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